Market Commentary: Casting Ballots and Buying Bonds

by Gayl Mileszko

Election Day typically stirs in us a multitude of feelings: excitement for our candidates, anxiety over the possibility of change, hope for the future of our family and country, pride in being an American exercising our right and privilege to vote. But the passion and patriotism reflected in Norman Rockwell’s classic mid-20th century images of voters is rarely evident this millennium. Only 50.3% of eligible voters turned out in for the 2018 mid-term elections, and 60.2% in 2016. So far this year, because the pandemic has led to expanded absentee and early voting, some 30 million have already cast their ballots. However, this has not made any of us immune to the polarizing chatter on network, cable and social media that is likely to continue long past the final tallies.

At HJ Sims, our investment professionals are sorting through the same issues, policy and economic implications, in the effort to determine what is best for our families, for you, for our communities, our industry, and our country. We are trying to tune out all the hype and hysteria to keep our attention on the things we can control or manage. We do not have a crystal ball, but we do have our years of experience in a multitude of market cycles. Like you, we are being told to expect extreme volatility to accompany scenarios involving a likely landslide, a clean sweep, or contested results that take us past inauguration day. After the events of this year, we will not be surprised by anything. But we take a lot of the talk and polls with a grain of salt in the belief that the system established by our 231 year-old Constitution, as amended, will work as intended. Markets may suffer, in our view, but they will soon absorb the results and move forward in line with expectations for further economic recovery.

We move on after every election with our lives and our plans for college, purchasing a new home, saving for retirement, living our retirement. Our recommendations to clients are properly tailored to individual situations and needs, and we have been in touch with you throughout the course of the pandemic. In the coming weeks and months, we will be in contact many times to assist you in being properly positioned to withstand some uncertainty while meeting your short- and long-term investment goals. As you know, markets fluctuate and performance varies. Algorithmic trading may produce some erratic sessions, and there is always year-end profit-taking and tax loss harvesting. But if you own bonds, we advise that you keep a few facts at hand to provide some reassurance in uncertain moments:

  • Just about every possible scenario has been well documented and analyzed and voters are braced for a close election and numerous possible outcomes, unlike in 2016.
  • The Federal Reserve intends to keep rates near 0% until 2024. That policy is supportive of risk assets and keeps longer-term bond yields lower. The Fed has intervened swiftly and effectively to stabilize markets in the past two recessions. They have a $7.1 trillion balance sheet and a variety of tools available including liquidity facilities and yield curve control, which involves buying enough long term bonds to keep prices from plummeting. Chair Jerome Powell has a term that ends in 2028 and the members of the Open Market Committee have staggered terms that go out to 2034.
  • U.S. securities meet with strong global demand as haven investments in a world with $16 trillion of bonds with negative yields.
  • During the 34 days of uncertainty in the 2000 Bush-Gore contest, 10-year Treasury yields fell 9% or 52 basis points from 5.86% to 5.34%. The yield on the Bond Buyer Revenue Bond Index yield dropped 3% from 5.79% to 5.59%. The S&P 500 Index lost 4% or 60 points, and the Russell 2000 fell 6% or 29 points.
  • Portfolio valuations will vary but coupon income remains steady in all but a very small percentage of cases. We believe that credit surveillance is essential and that risks should be regularly assessed in election as well as non-election cycles.
  • Mutual fund flows are likely to be a much bigger factor on muni rates than election outcomes themselves. Municipal bond funds have seen $24.4 billion of inflows this year and have been positive for all but 1 of the past 23 weeks. If funds sell off in any type of temporary herd panic, prices may fall for a time but there may be great opportunities to acquire individual bonds at lower or discounted prices.
  • Significant other technical factors contribute to the prevailing high muni prices. New issue supply has for years been insufficient to meet demand from investors seeking tax-exempt bonds, particularly those in states with high and increasing tax rates. The coming months will see large redemptions, calls and maturing bonds, producing cash looking for muni reinvestment opportunities.
  • No major policy changes happen overnight; it took two years to enact tax reform and health care reform under single party control in Washington. Since 1945, Democrats have had control 37% of the time, Republicans 16%, and the White House and Congress have been split 47%. Main Street and Wall Street tend to prefer more legislative gridlock than less.
  • Markets have been awaiting news of agreement on another fiscal stimulus, but this has so far been elusive. Stocks have traded up on every hint of progress as well as on positive corporate earnings. So far in October, at this writing, the Dow is up 413 points, the S&P 500 has gained 64 points and the Nasdaq 311 points. The BAA rated corporate bond index yield has dipped 14 basis points to 2.88%. The fear index has risen by 11%, oil is up by 1.5%, and gold has gained $12 an ounce. As assets have moved toward risk, Treasuries and munis have weakened. The 2-year Treasury yield has risen 2 basis points to 0.14% while the AAA rated general obligation bond benchmark is up 5 basis points to 0.18%. The 10-year Treasury at 0.76% is 8 basis points higher in October and the comparable muni yield has risen 7 basis points to 0.94%. The 30-year Treasury and long muni bond yields have both risen 10 basis points to 1.55% and 1.72%, respectively.

With less than two weeks to go before Election Day, borrowers are keeping the markets hopping. $15 billion is expected in the investment grade corporate bond market and $8 billion in the high yield sector after last week’s $20 billion supply. Last week, the $18 billion muni calendar included an $80 million Ba3 rated general obligation bond issue for the City of Detroit that saw orders from 30 institutional investors totaling $780 million. The 30-year maturity was re-priced at 5.50% to yield 4.12%. In other high yield deals, the Essex County Improvement Authority issued $29.5 million of BBB- rated revenue bonds for North Star Academy Charter School of Newark, structured with 2060 term bonds priced at 4.00% to yield 3.58%, and the Arkansas Development Finance Authority brought a $19.8 million non-rated deal for Responsive Education Solutions that had a 2051 final maturity priced with a 4.00% coupon to yield 4.18%.

This week, Markets have their eye on third quarter earnings, jobless claims, a slew of housing data, and the Fed’s Beige Book. The municipal slate is expected to total between $15 and $21 billion this week, with between $5 and $10 billion coming as taxable. The final presidential debate is scheduled for Thursday night, and the Tampa Bay Rays and Los Angeles Dodgers meet for the first three games of the 116th World Series.

Exclusive Opportunities For Our Clients